As a part of its observance of Black History Month, the Sherman Museum welcomed Southern Methodist University Professor Njoki McElroy Thursday night to speak about her life and sign copies of her memoir “1012 Natchez,” a book named for the address of her grandparents’ former home in Sherman. About two dozen locals gathered in the museum’s basement meeting room to hear McElroy recall memories of weekends spent in Grayson County — memories McElroy described as especially formative.
“I am always excited coming back to Sherman, because my life was shaped by events in Sherman,” said McElroy. “Sherman is never very far away from me; if I’m on the other side of the world, a part of Sherman is with me.”
Seated at the front of the room and pushing 90 years old, McElroy spoke softly with measured diction for more than an hour, her voice almost winking at several well-placed and seemingly well-rehearsed laugh-lines throughout. But much of McElroy’s speech was no laughing matter.
Then named Hilda Hampton, McElroy was five years old in 1930 when Sherman experienced perhaps the darkest hour in its history, as a rioting mob burned down the Grayson County courthouse and lynched a black farmhand accused of raping a white woman. Though McElroy was at her parents’ house in Dallas at the time of the events, she can recall her mother’s concern when news of the riot broke across the radio. She said she believes Sherman would have grown into a large metropolitan area à la Dallas if not for the events of May 9 that year.
“The riot was something that changed Sherman … there were plans for Sherman to be a big, metro area,” said McElroy. “But when that riot went as far as it went, it destroyed that progressive spirit that was on track at the time.”
She said her grandparents — who owned a cache of guns and sheltered several local black families during the riot — rarely spoke of the lynching in the aftermath. But the repercussions echoed across her life, she said.
“A lot of times we hear about these historical events from a factual date, time, place, but when you’re from the inside and you hear the fear and the people being threatened, you get that part of history that’s difficult to document. And it lasts.”
Lightening the mood as the clock passed 7:30 p.m., McElroy ended her talk with a story about a double-date she had with Jackie Robinson in 1945, a short while before before Jackie Robinson became Jackie Robinson.
“He was educated and sophisticated, where most of the Negro League baseball players were from the Deep South, uneducated, trying to get away from their poverty,” recounted McElroy. “But Jackie, he had been all over and everything so he was very conversational. He had these kind eyes — you know, there are people who have kind eyes — and a wonderful smile. His voice was soft.”